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Get the Indians Out of the Cupboard

Indians in the Cupboard?  Perhaps some find this phrase offensive.  I hope so because I want to spark discussion about stereotyping Native Americans.


A look at Alternative World Views:  Whose stories? Whose voices? Contemporary multicultural books – where are they; who is writing them; how do we find them?






What is the problem?

Let’s look at three popular classics:  Little House on the Prairie (Wilder ),  Peter Pan (James Barrie, 1905?), and Indian in the Cupboard (Banks, 1980).  These books are as popular today and used in classrooms as they were when first published.


All have characters that “resemble” American Indians – they have black hair, dark skin, the women wear braids, they live in tipis and carry tomahawks, bows and arrows.  These characters are typical stereotypes.  Stereotypes hurt children.  Instead of expanding awareness and appreciation, stereotyping limits understanding and increases separation between people.  Stereotypes build walls between “we” and “they.” Stereotyping in any form is poor substitute for getting to know individuals at a meaningful level.

The first goal of this discussion is to increase awareness of the subtle racism that exists in the literature we write for children.

A second goal is to increase awareness of the mis-information and perpetuation of  inaccurate myths  -- in our history books, nonfiction picture books, holiday books, and so on. 

My third goal is to increase awareness of books that represent native people accurately as individuals who may live in cities or reservations, work in schools, hospitals or farms. Debby and I will suggest lists where you can find these books, the awards that celebrate them, the blogs that discuss them.

 First comes awareness and then follows change.

 Look at a photograph and listen with new ears.”  Alberto Rios


Kathy Short (University of Arizona) speaks eloquently about attitude:  “Teaching for intercultural understanding involves far more than lessons on human relations and sensitivity training or country units on only the most visible elements of culture, such as food, fashion, folklore, famous people and festivals…Interculturalism is not a unit, activity, or book, but an attitude of mind.” 

I was about to read my book, Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons, to my friend’s five-year old grandson.  I pointed out that I live on the Navajo Nation Reservation.  He looked up at me, eyes round, “Have you ever gotten shot by a bow and arrow?”

I explained that Navajo are friendly, like his neighbors.  They don’t gallop around on horses shooting arrows.  He interrupted –

“But what about their tipis?”

“Nope, no tipis.”  He shook his head, frowned at me. Obviously I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“Indians live in tipis and shoot with bows and arrows.  See, it shows it right here in this book.”

“What book?”

He showed me, Peter Pan.  How could I argue with Peter Pan?

1.    Stereotypes:  The Indians in Peter Pan live in tipis, carry tomahawks, wear war paint.  For many children these cartoon characters are their only image.  There is no difference noted between the tribes, such as Navajo, Cherokee, Apache, Abenaki.  Amazing that even today, books and films, videos continue to portray cartoonish caricatures – people with broad faces and long braids.

  Stereotypes are not dead, nor are they dying.  In a recent American Indians in Children’s Literature.blogspot (11/2009) Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) lists dozens of stereotypes -- war paint, squaws, papooses, scalping, war paths and chiefs.  Her list goes on and on.

2.    Tokenism to full-board inclusion.  Indian characters are included in folk stories about Thanksgiving and Columbus.   What real Indian can you name?  Their history and people are part of all American  history, arts, sciences, sports, music, and authors/illustrators.  The body of children’s nonfiction literature -- biographies, natural history, science, social science, athletes –includes very few American Indians or Alaskan natives. In the publishing world today, the smallest group of books is still books by or about American Indians.

The field is not all glum.  Books are being written that celebrate American Indians as individuals, both in fiction and nonfiction.  Joseph Bruchac has written hundreds of excellent books. Some outstanding examples include his picture-book biography,  Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path, and A Boy Called Slow, the True Story of Sitting Bull, and his middle-grade historical novel, Hidden Roots.  In The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie brings the unique voice of Junior who tells it like it is – being an adolescent and growing up in “two worlds.”  

Past tense:  Most published books about American Indians focus on the past as if these people have not continued to thrive and change.  Just as people living in the Midwest no longer live in sod houses as described in the “Little House” series, people from tribes in the Midwest no longer live in tipis.  Where are the books about contemporary heroes and heroines?  Ask a child to name an American Indian and you might hear them say Pocahantas or Geronimo.  What about writers like Michael Lacapa  or Cynthia Leitich Smith; athletes like Notah Begay (golfer) or Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox baseball player)  Artists like Alan Houser or RC Gorman, performers like Buffy Saint Marie or R. Carlos Nakai?  Filmmakers like Sherman Alexie or Sandra Sunrising Osawa?


Where are the books that present accurate images of outstanding American Indians to inspire young people today?  Why are there still stereotypes that present images of “savages” running around wearing breech cloths or war paint?  

3.    Inaccurate history:  History books are written by the victors.  As writers or teachers we can encourage the critical thinking skills of our readers.  Look at history from both sides.  Is Columbus a hero to American Indians?  Why is the story of the “discovered people” seldom told from their point of view?


Marc Aronson says it well in this paragraph:

"Rather than examine famous peoples’ lives or historical movements critically, today’s children’s books often leave kids with little more than legends—George Washington and the cherry tree; Thomas Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, minus any mention of Sally Hemings, the young slave with whom current DNA evidence shows he fathered six children; our nation’s “glorious” Westward expansion, told exclusively through images of heroic whites and savage Indians. The point of overturning these and other myths isn’t simply to set the record straight; it’s to point out that our interpretation of history is constantly being challenged, debated, and revised. The only way we can bring that crucial message to young people is if we risk sharing our doubts about the very accounts they were taught in elementary school. If we do that, students may at first feel like they’ve been fooled. But just as in middle-grade and YA novels that turn fairy tales upside down and inside out, young people will have an opportunity to use what they’ve learned as a baseline to develop new, more accurate understandings—which is precisely what we want."


The presentation of new understandings and some solutions is what we will talk about this week.  I invite your suggestions, please.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 9th, 2009 01:36 pm (UTC)
a few resources
In case it's useful, I offer a listing of resources for educators/librarians here:
Nov. 9th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
Resources, thank you, Cynthia
Cynthia Leitich Smith's website is a rich source of resources for teachers, librarians and writers too. Articles, reviews and more places to find good books. A couple of other sources:

Books and BLOGS that go beyond bows and arrows: a sampling
Look also at Debbie Reese’s Blog for another listing of resources: blog sites, books, articles, ideas, reviews, curriculum considerations:

American Indians in Children's Literature

Debbie A. Reese (Nambé O'-ween-ge')
Assistant Professor, American Indian Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Look also at: www.Josephbruchac.com

Debby and I will be describing additional resources and books during the week. Thank you - please add ones you find helpful. Nancy Bo Flood
Nov. 10th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
Re: a few resources
Cynthia's is one of the best sites around, overall.

Her two vampire books are, hands down, so much better than the TWILIGHT series.

Nov. 10th, 2009 01:39 am (UTC)
Interesting, Nancy! I'm curious about your opinion of the depiction of Jake, the character from the TWIGHLIGHT/NEW MOON series?
Nov. 10th, 2009 02:31 am (UTC)
Good question, Kelly: Jake from Twilight
First I have to admit I haven't read the series so I have only second-source reviews and critiques to offer. Those reviewing from Native American viewpoints were critical. The major criticism voiced was that American Indian motifs and symbols were inaccurately borrowed. Their use was superficial and stereotyped, analogous to using visual symbols or caricatures on t-shirts. Debby, what is your take on this one?
Nancy Bo Flood
Nov. 10th, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC)
I've written several times about TWILIGHT. And, there's more to say, but finding time to say it... that's another matter.

Go over to American Indians in Children's Literature, and scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page. You'll see a set of links there for some books that I've written about a lot. TWILIGHT is among them.
Nov. 10th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, much more to say
Thank you, Debbie, and I encourage interested readers to read more of your reviews and insights on American Indians in Children's Literature - especially your most recent discussion about PETER PAN IN SCARLET. Stereotypes are not diminishing. My own opinion is that they are growing, for many cultures and ethnicities, as video, films, media, u-tube, uses cliche images to quickly produce "entertainment."

On Friday's post Debby and I will describe other resources, such as the American Indian Library Assoc. Youth Book Awards; www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/lit_resources/diversity/native; www.LacapaSpiritPrize; Lee and Low Books' New Voices Award.

A related important question, how do we encourage the use of books free of stereotypes, contemporary books - biographies, nonfiction, fiction - as part of the total curriculum in schools, not just a token offering during Native American Month? Comments and suggestions? Thank you, Debbie, Nancy Bo Flood
Nov. 10th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
about the Quileute
I'm not an close follower of the Twilight books but I am a former resident of Taholah, the reservation immediately south of La Push. I tend to agree that the portrayal of the Quileute is not so much offensive as regrettably shallow. There was a great opportunity here to do some solid research and say something of greater substance about the local culture.

Fortunately, the tribes of the area are quite equal to the task of telling their own history. If you have an opportunity to visit the area--perhaps on a Twilight tour, please be sure to visit the Makah Cultural Resource Center in Neah Bay. They are the tribe immediately north of the Quileute. These tribes were both historic whalers, and the Makah maintain a world-class museum on the subject of indigenous whaling.

The Quinault in Taholah are (I believe) more linguistically close to their Quileute neighbors. The Quinault also have a fine historical collection. They have maintained control of their fishery for centuries and run a state of the art tribal fishery program including a hatchery and fish packing plant. Tours of these facilities can be arranged.

All three tribes remain in their original homelands. These territories are much reduced, yet they still control much of their natural resources and so have had a different cultural experience than many displaced tribes in other regions. All these tribes maintain websites and have resident scholars in both history and the natural sciences who would probably be glad field the questions of students wishing to know more about the area.

So although the Twilight books, in my opinion, missed an opportunity to illuminate the culture of the Quileute, there is no reason for a curious reader to remain ignorant. Resources abound for those who are willing to use them.
Nov. 10th, 2009 07:31 am (UTC)
Rosanne, author of Heart of a Shepherd, thank you!
Rosanne Parry, author of Heart of a Shepherd. Thank you for your insights and your descriptions. Your point is excellent. If someone uses aspects of any culture, this needs to be done with careful research and respect, not casually or again, it is just a handy cliche' or stereotype. I think an analogy would be walking into someone's home and taking a family quilt or favorite toy for one's own use. Thank you for your sharing your perspective, Nancy Bo Flood

Thank you also for writing Heart of a Shepherd, a book that powerfully shares a boy's experience of how war affects us all.
Nov. 10th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)
There are, of course, Cynthia Leitich-Smith's novels. I didn't mean to overlook those.
Nov. 10th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the question, Stephanie. and YES, and contemporary is what we need more of in every aspect of bi-racial, multi-racial, multicultural. This up and coming generation lives in a global world.

Begin with Sherman Alexie's "Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" and also watch his film, "Business of Fancy Dancing." His book speaks to all kids, all teens, from the unique perspective or set of eyes of Junior/ Sherman. Then try books by Joseph Bruchac,: EAGLE SONG, WARRIOR, or the powerful HIDDEN ROOTS. For the younger reader, try JINGLE DANCER by Cynthia Leitich Smith, or RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME. Powwow's Coming by Linda Boyden is pure fun. and tune in on Friday when Debby and I introduce more books as well as sites and places to find them. As it has been pointed out, you will seldom find them in the book stores. Thank you for your comments and question, Nancy Bo Flood
Nov. 10th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks for bringing up this important issue. I wanted to mention that my recent book, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin, discusses how Native Americans were seen by European Americans in the 19th century. It also explores how Catlin, through his books, paintings, and lectures, helped create certain stereotypes while at the same time preserving a record of traditional ways of life. He was a fascinating and controversial figure, and is coincidentally part of the narrative of Louise Erdrich's forthcoming novel, Shadow Tag.
Susanna Reich
Nov. 10th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
Many Perspectives
Susanna, Your comment is important as one reflects on the journey of understanding and perception. Barrie wrote "Peter Pan" during those years when Europeans saw the Wild West and Indians as either a savage place and people or a romanticized place and people. In Sherman Alexie's opening scene in "Business of Fancy Dancing" he hits this problem with glancing away. One of the goals of this week's dialogue is to voice the need to move beyond the stereotyped perceptions. Most American Indians live in urban settings not on Reservations. "Past" images need to be let go of. Awareness, appreciation and understanding of "Present" is needed. In tomorrow's post we hear the voice of Bahe Whitethorne, Jr. - artist - art director - musician - speak to this topic. Thank you for your comments and thank you for your very honest biography of George Catlin. Nancy Bo Flood
Nov. 10th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Many Perspectives
ooops, may I addend and edit my comment: "Sherman Alexie's opening scene in "Business of Fancy Dancing" he hits this problem WITHOUT glancing away. Thank you and I apologize, Nancy
Nov. 10th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
I deleted my first post, I must admit, Nancy, because I feared putting my toe into what I know can become a hot issue before I let you and Debbie speak. But what I wrote spoke to exactly what Debbie talked about today. I asked who, because of the decades of sometimes angry dialogue about who has the right to write about which culture, should be writing the books that Native American children need to read today. I asked whether, in addition to the picture books you cited about famous Native Americans, there are any contemporary books about Native American kids in elementary, middle, or high school. I mentioned Sherman Alexis and then Cynthia. Countless cultural groups - from the Chinese to the Irish and Polish to the African to the Indian - were misrepresented in books of long ago. Rather than decry those, or in addition to doing that, shouldn't writers in every culture be writing so that the children in that culture can see themselves, and so that other children can also see them? This conversation so often polarizes.
Nov. 10th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
How do we move forward?
Stephanie, I think you have hit the issue squarely. We can decry past misrepresentations, most of which appear to be openly racist. And we can point out where these still exist today, as they most certainly do, but more importantly, we need to find a way forward. My grandmother taught me a long time ago that if you look hard enough you can find the good and bad in every person. She taught me by her own example that it’s better to focus on what is good and build on it.

In this vein, Rosanne raised an important point. Does Stephenie Meyer’s portrayal of the Quileute offend? Maybe. I did not finish the book and have not followed the debate but I can say that from my experience, that Jacob did not feel like a native man/boy to me. He says things like, “So do you think we're a bunch of superstitious natives or what?” That’s Meyers talking, not Jacob. His relationship with his grandfather feels off, too. But on the balance, the whole portrayal is not really mean-spirited; it’s just shallow, which leads to cliché, which leads to stereotype. In terms of moving on, as Rosanne points out, Meyers missed an opportunity to do some real research.

Research has its own pitfalls, of course. We’ll talk about that more latter, I hope.
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